Helping families navigate mental illness

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By Amber Daugherty

Steve Hagey describes the period of time before his wife was admitted to St. Joseph’s Health Centre’s Mental Health and Addictions program as “constant stress and high tension.” For months he juggled the daily commitments of work and providing an income for his family, being home so he could get his two young sons off to school, while remaining emotionally supportive and patient to his wife who was experiencing something that he just could not understand.

The personal turning point for Steve came after his wife found help in our mental health program and when he was introduced to the Family Navigation Program – a resource available to family members of patients living with mental illness.

After spending so much energy taking care of everyone else, Steve finally felt like he had somewhere he could turn to.

“The benefit was just knowing that there was support for the person on the other side of the hospital bed,” said Steve. “They provided an experienced voice in mental health that helped me understand how the hospital was trying to treat my wife so that I had a better sense of (her) recovery.”

With over 60,000 visits to our Mental Health and Addictions programs in the past year, we see many family members – including parents, grandparents and siblings – supporting their family members as they go through what can be an incredibly difficult time. And while patients are being treated, family members often experience symptoms of confusion, sadness and frustration. That’s where the Family Navigation Program helps bridge the gap.

Our program matches family members with social workers experienced in mental health who provide that educational voice to explain the complexities of what’s happening with their loved one as they go through their care journey. The social workers guide families through the hospital process and in some cases, even sit in on meetings with the patient’s healthcare team to be a part of the conversation. The program is a partnership between St. Joseph’s Health Centre and the Family Outreach and Response Program and, in addition to providing information and education, offers family counselling, family support groups and connections to resources for continued ongoing support.

“Families are going through a tremendous amount when their loved ones are being treated,” said Dr. Jose Silveira, Chief of Psychiatry. “While patients are receiving medical support, their family members need to be taken care of too.”

“Working with family members enables them to support their loved ones at home and reduce the need for emergency services,” he said. “As families gain a better understanding of mental health and responding to crises, they understand what resources are needed and how to handle those situations.”

It’s been a year since Steve’s wife returned home after spending a month with St. Joe’s and he’s grateful for the Family Navigation Program’s support.

“Mental health is difficult for anyone but if you’re new to the situation, I think it’s incredibly difficult to bear the emotional weight on your own,” he said. “This program’s accessibility and support was incredibly helpful when we were at our very difficult time.”

Amber Daugherty is a Communications Coordinator at St. Joseph’s Health Centre.

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